If there was ever an example that the genre label of “hip-hop” is past due a re-think, Young Thug is it. The man is a wondrous mess of contradictions, taking the “sing-rapping” pioneered by Future and pushing it a totally new, relentlessly innovative direction. It would be easy to say Thug just makes trap music, given that his beats usually fit within that sphere, but to do so would be to discount the incredible things he does with his voice. He even challenges hip-hop’s basic cultural touchstones, like its obsession with the masculine. His moniker may just be the most generic gangster-rap name of all time, but on the cover of JEFFERY he rocks an incredibly stylish dress, and has long been open about his ambivalence towards binary gender. He’s been heading this way for a while now, but with JEFFERY, Young Thug has defiantly moved beyond hip-hop, and has become a genre unto himself.
At a brisk 42 minutes made up of 9 tracks, JEFFERY shows that Thug knows his own strengths. He’s such a bright, energetic presence, but he can be tiring over too long a runtime, so he has wisely prioritised efficiency on this record. For the first 4 tracks, it seems like Thug has just made another strong Young Thug mixtape (Future Swag in particular features Thug doing an impressive impression of the eponymous artist), like he did with Slime Season 3 or I’m Up, but from RiRi onwards, we get to see him experiment more relentlessly than ever before.
The most notable thing about the tape is just how vulnerable and romantic Thug lets himself be. Whilst lots of his funny, creative lyricism focuses on his defiant individuality (if the cover wasn’t a giveaway) – “I know I ain’t a b***h but I’m still singing” – much of the tape is devoted to Thug’s fiancé, Jerrika – “love her vibe, love her vibe, she makes me feel so nice”. Particularly on RiRi and Kanye West (for reference, Thug says the tracks are named after his “heroes”) he is sweet to a fault – “I’m a vet but I’m ready to settle down / I don’t wanna know what’s next” – without compromising his usual stream-of-consciousness madness.
Harambe is probably the best example of what makes Thug unique and special. Given the prevalence of the Harambe meme, it would have been easy for Thug to make a joke of a track, or to simply try to chronicle the famous story, but instead he tries to tap into a metaphorical emotional core of confusion and rage that the gorilla must have felt in his final moments – “got the devil inside me / god tryna provide me”. He even tries out a new vocal style on the track, rapping in a raspy, guttural yelp that’s both aggressive and vulnerable, like he’s barely clinging to life. Young Thug didn’t make a track to crassly profit from a popularised tragedy, because Young Thug is better than that. He chose to honour his subject, and it’s that humility and individuality that makes him not just one of the most electrifying figures in hip-hop, but in all of modern music.